New York: An 18-year-old showed up in a Long Island emergency room, gasping for breath, vomiting and dizzy. When a doctor asked if the teenager had been vaping, he said no.
The patient’s older brother, a police officer, was suspicious. He rummaged through the youth’s room and found hidden vials of marijuana for vaping.
“I don’t know where he purchased it. He doesn’t know,” said Dr Melodi Pirzada, chief paediatric pulmonologist at NYU Winthrop Hospital in Mineola, New York, who treated the young man. “Luckily, he survived.”
Pirzada is one of the many physicians across the country treating patients — now totalling more than 215 — with mysterious and life-threatening, vaping-related illnesses this summer.
The outbreak is “becoming an epidemic,” she said. “Something is very wrong.”
215vaping-related illnesses being treated in the US by physicians this summer
Patients, mostly otherwise healthy and in their late teens and 20s, are showing up with severe shortness of breath, often after suffering for several days with vomiting, fever and fatigue. Some have wound up in the intensive care unit or on a ventilator for weeks. Treatment has been complicated by patients’ lack of knowledge — and sometimes outright denial — about the actual substances they might have used or inhaled.
Health investigators are now trying to determine whether a particular toxin or substance has sneaked into the supply of vaping products, whether some people reused cartridges containing contaminants, or whether the risk stems from a broader behaviour, like heavy electronic cigarette use, vaping marijuana or a combination.
We’ve run all these tests looking for bacteria, looking for viruses and coming up negative.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a warning to teenagers and other consumers, telling them to stop buying bootleg and street cannabis and e-cigarette products, and to stop modifying devices to vape adulterated substances.
The illnesses have focused attention on a trend that has been overshadowed by the intense public concern about soaring teenage use of e-cigarettes, with its potential for hooking a new generation on nicotine: the rise of the vaping device itself. It has introduced a wholesale change in how people consume nicotine or marijuana, by inhaling vaporised ingredients.
How does vaping work?
Vaping works by heating liquid and turning it into steam to be inhaled. Broadly speaking, e-cigarettes are considered less harmful than traditional cigarettes, which work through the combustion of tobacco that sends thousands of chemicals, many carcinogenic, into the lungs.
But vaping has its own problems: To become inhalable, nicotine or THC, the high-inducing chemical in marijuana, must be mixed with solvents that dissolve and deliver the drugs. The solvents, or oils, heat up during aerosolisation to become vapour. But some oil droplets may be left over as the liquid cools back down, and inhaling those drops may cause breathing problems and lung inflammation.
Why is inhaling vaping oil so dangerous?
“Inhaling oil into your lungs is extremely dangerous behaviour that could result in death,” said Thomas Eissenberg, who studies vaping at Virginia Commonwealth University. “That is probably the biggest message we can get out of this.”
Many vaping ingredients are not listed on the products. Vitamin E oil appears to have been a common substance associated with the severe and sudden respiratory problems in some of the New York cases, according to state health officials. It is not known how it was used. Vitamin E is sometimes advertised as a supplement in cannabidiol oil, which is not designed for vaping but has been used that way.
What’s suddenly gone wrong with e-cigarettes?
Dr Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said he suspected a link to illicit products — perhaps related to ingredients including THC — because the main manufacturers of e-cigarettes had not suddenly altered their ingredients on a wide scale. “It’s probably something new that has been introduced into the market by an illegal manufacturer, either a new flavour or a new way to emulsify THC that is causing these injuries,” he said.
The outbreaks have created a crisis for e-cigarettes, which has pitched itself as beneficial to public health. E-cigarette supporters consider the technology a safer alternative to smoking.
So is smoking e-cigarettes worse than a normal one?
Now some subset of these products is causing a serious lung disease that even cigarettes, while lethal in the long run, don’t cause in young people. Lobbyists and company officials in both industries are scrambling to blame unregulated products. The spate of illnesses has made news again of Juul Labs, maker of the blockbuster e-cigarette device blamed for the surge in teenage vaping. In a television interview, Kevin Burns, the company’s chief executive, said he did not know of evidence linking the recent cases to Juul’s products.
Why are medics calling the illnesses a mystery?
On lung scans, the illnesses look at first like a serious viral or bacterial pneumonia, but tests show no infection. “We’ve run all these tests looking for bacteria, looking for viruses and coming up negative,” said Dr Dixie Harris, a critical care pulmonologist in Salt Lake City, who has consulted on four such patients and reviewed case files of nine others in the state.
Harris said that the four patients she had been directly involved with “have been doing e-cigarettes with nicotine constantly, like round the clock. Maybe there’s some sort of accelerant effect causing inflammation in the lung caused by the THC oil.”
What about other complications?
Some patients are suffering from another condition known as lipoid pneumonia, doctors said. When vaped oils get into the lungs, the lungs treat them as a foreign object and mount an immune response, resulting in inflammation and the build-up of liquids, which can cause lipoid pneumonia. The surge in these illnesses comes at the start of a school year, one in which parents, teachers and administrators had already braced for the challenge of educating in the age of the vape pen, which is easy to conceal.
Why is the industry so hard to regulate around the world?
While educator and parental concern has focused on Juul, the reality is that the market for vaping devices and the liquids that fill them is vast and filled with counterfeiters and do-it-yourselfers, making it hard for regulators and scientists to home in on a specific product. The Vapor Technology Association, an e-cigarette and vaping industry trade group, asked “public officials to thoroughly investigate the circumstances which might have led to each reported hospitalisation before making statements to the public as to whether certain products are implicated in these incidents.”
So what happens in the long run?
While e-cigarettes have been presumed less harmful over the long run than cigarettes, the ultimate impact from years of vaping is simply not yet known. Eissenberg, director of the Centre for the Study of Tobacco Products at Virginia Commonwealth University, said seven cases of similar lung injuries from e-cigarette vaping had been reported in previous years. “A common ingredient was vegetable glycerine, which is made from vegetable oil,” he said. “If there is some incomplete process, there can be oil left in the vegetable glycerine when that person is using it, and inhaling oil and getting oil into your lungs is what is causing some of the lung injuries we see.”
“Basically what the FDA should be doing is testing every one of these liquids to see if they have any oil at all and making a regulation that would ban oil in any of these products, whether it is a THC product or a nicotine product,” said Eissenberg, who is researching vaping with a grant from the agency.
Has the severity of the illnesses surprised doctors?
Dr Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a part of the National Institutes of Health, said she was surprised at the severity of the lung disease involved in this summer’s cases, but not by the possibility that vaping products were causing such illnesses. “There is no oversight,” Volkow said. “No one is actually evaluating the products to see whether they are pure, or if they contain toxic substances. There has to be some way of regulating them.”